In North Kerry, they like to pull wins from their bootlaces, so Eamonn Fitzmaurice must have enjoyed yesterday.
Kerry not so much chiselled as quarried their passage to September from this All-Ireland semi-final.
When Tyrone, under Mickey Harte, are boxing out of the red corner, there’s no alternative anyway.
In the future, this 0-18 to 1-11 victory may be reduced to a footnote, depending on September 20.
The country’s top three teams are still standing, but irrespective of what happens Sunday between Mayo and Dublin, neither will go into the final as scrutinised as Kerry.
Harte reminded his audience afterwards that semi-finals are all about the winning and Kerry are better than anyone at it. This was Kerry’s 11th semi-final win in the last 16, and a ninth in the past 12 years. They haven’t lost a championship game now since the classic semi-final of 2013 against the Dubs.
Few of those winning semis, however, were mined from a position as fraught as they faced with eight minutes remaining in Croke Park.
No team examines Kerry’s intestinal fortitude as thoroughly as Tyrone, irrespective of what the former will feign in denial. And in their determination yesterday to run hard and often at Kerry, Harte’s attack had the Kingdom in a state of back-pedalling vulnerability all over again. It produced the “stonewall” penalty — as Eamonn Fitzmaurice admitted — that drew Tyrone to within a point on the hour. With the equalising point two minutes later from Mark Bradley came a tidal surge in the underdogs’ favour and the precise scenario from which Tyrone were most likely to clean Kerry’s clock again.
For a brief moment, Kerry were clambering for the ropes, but it was only a brief moment. In the time left, around seven minutes plus, they would add four points and Tyrone would add nothing.
Each point was a novella in itself.
Michael Jordan’s shoes didn’t make him the cash register he became in the NBA and beyond. His never-ending conversion of clutch plays down the stretch did.
Where most mortals’ arteries narrowed, Jordan’s eyes opened wide.
There’s been huge moments for Kerry in Croke Park over the past 15 years when they failed to execute the big plays when it mattered most. 2002 and 2011 come to mind. Yesterday, they showed remarkable poise in the most exacting environment and in the most horrendous conditions. First Anthony Maher, then Paul Geaney, Colm Cooper and Barry John Keane eschewed the chance to scrum-half the pressure when it came calling.
For the Dingle sharpshooter, it’s his stock in trade. Two critical points from play is nothing more than he’d expect from a half’s toil, but the lead point in the 63rd minute from Anthony Maher was the more fundamental in steadying Kerry’s hand. Next, the artful dodger Cooper was mangled on the endline as he strove to make it a three-point game — Geaney tapped over the free.
The insurance score? That came from a man described afterwards by Fitzmaurice as the unluckiest in the squad. If Barry John Keane was a slot machine in Las Vegas, they’d wheel him out of the casino into a backstreet alleyway for coming up trumps too often. In injury-time yesterday, he got one sight of the posts and swished like Jordan.
Having Colm Cooper and James O’Donoghue in front of you in the queue for inside-forward slots might break some aspirants, but Keane is relentless. He was unfairly taken off in the drawn Munster final and not picked for the replay. Even as far back as the Munster Championship opener in Thurles against Tipperary, he failed to finish the game, despite being one of Kerry’s best attackers on the day.
His manager recognises the frustration of the Tralee lad, a grandson of 1955 Kerry captain, John Dowling.
“He’s incredible,” said Fitzmaurice afterwards. “He has to be the unluckiest man in the squad because of the players that he’s competing with. His form line, going back to last June when we went to Portugal, has been incredible and his attitude has been even better. Another fella in his position could easily throw the toys out of the pram, but he’s been the ultimate pro. Even today, he only got five or six minutes at the end, but got involved a few times and kicked a great point so I couldn’t say enough about how good he has been and how well he’s playing in training. He’ll be trying to drive it on to get the (final) start he deserves.”
If the final seven minutes is regarded as disproportionately significant here, the Tyrone manager isn’t inclined to disagree. An hour’s slugging hadn’t separated the semi-finalists. Though Kerry had more control and possession, but what transpired was closer to what Harte would have envisaged.
They had goal chances where Kerry created none — though he was black-carded after 15 minutes, Marc Ó Sé had already effected one of the blocks of the season to deny Darren McCurry. Brendan Kealy made a season-defining save from Bradley, not unlike the one Paschal McConnell produced at the other end when these counties met in the final seven years ago.
“We created the next two or three scoring chances (after Bradley’s equaliser), but we didn’t take them and when you don’t take them, that sort of puts pay to all that good work and drive and momentum. We didn’t back it up on the scoreboard so the momentum went astray for that reason,” Harte accepted.
When Padraig McNulty went down close to the Kerry goal in the dying minutes, it amounted to a “decent call” for a penalty, in Harte’s eyes. Whether the legacy of Tiernan McCann’s theatrical collapse in the quarter-final was a factor or not, ref Maurice Deegan was more inclined to reach for sanction for feigning rather than a second Tyrone penalty.
McNulty was one of four Tyrone replacements, but they had nothing like the cumulative impact of Fitzmaurice’s changes. Geaney and Keane had four points between them, Fionn Fitzgerald did superbly for a man who wasn’t seen since saving their bacon in the drawn Munster final.
With James O’Donoghue’s inclusion hogging headlines — “it was no risk”, insisted Fitzmaurice — Bryan Sheehan’s exclusion for Johnny Buckley slipped under the radar. The Dr Crokes man vindicated the call in spectacular fashion, producing a more rounded 70-odd minutes than even Donnchadh Walsh yesterday. That says something.
Eight Kerry attackers contributed to their scoring haul, and with the spread of form at this stage as wide as it is long, who would bet against Tommy Walsh or Paul Galvin having a say in September?
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